Council Member Menchaca & Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
All of us who care about New York City – and if you are a regular reader of Gotham Gazette that surely includes you – are worried about its future. COVID-19 has shuttered our economy and seriously impaired the lives and livelihoods of millions of our residents. It is clear that things will never go back to the way they were and that we must turn this disaster into an opportunity to bring back a different, better, fairer city.
But fear of change and the demonizing of ‘development’ risk derailing one of the most important vehicles New York has to generate new jobs and revenue: changes in zoning so that neighborhoods can adjust to new conditions and attract more housing and business. In January I wrote about the risk to the city’s plan to upzone Inwood in Northern Manhattan to provide more housing. Though the plan included a number of community enhancements and had been approved by the area’s City Council member, Ydanis Rodriguez, it was challenged in court by local opposition groups. Fortunately the appellate division correctly reversed the lower court’s decision, but the opposing groups have vowed to appeal.
Now comes another possible derailment of a proposed zoning change: the rejection by Council Member Carlos Menchaca of the proposal to expand Industry City on the Brooklyn waterfront. This plan to turn the area around the vibrantly successful and creative Industry City into a light manufacturing zone was first announced in 2015 and has been reviewed and refined in response to community input. The developers have indicated willingness to sign a community benefits agreement including all of the requirements Menchaca had specified, including removal of hotels from the plan, restriction on the amount of retail space, creation of a manufacturing hub managed by a non-profit, expansion of the existing Innovation Hub to connect more local residents to jobs, support for worker cooperatives and training and research around green manufacturing.
In both the Inwood and the Industry City cases, despite years of community engagement and input, whether through ‘member deference’ which enables the local Council member to veto a project or, failing that, through the courts, vocal groups have been able to sidetrack the projects. The chilling effect of the failure to bring an Amazon headquarters to Queens is being exacerbated just at the moment when we need to be encouraging outer-borough centers of innovation and employment.
Of course every effort should be made to assure that the current residents of the surrounding area benefit from new development, and the Industry City plan adopts this goal. Indeed 57% of the 8,000 jobs already created by Industry City are filled by Brooklyn residents and 37% from the immediate neighborhood. This rezoning would bring an additional $64 million in private investment on top of the $400 million already spent on Industry City revitalization. It would attract new kinds of businesses and pump 15,000 more jobs and $100 million a year in tax revenue into the city’s economy. Projects like this are vital to ensuring a healthy future and the stakes are too high to let a determined minority override the best interests of everyone else.
A few public officials have come forward to defend the Industry City project and urge its approval despite the local Council member’s objection. Two of them wrote convincingly in the Daily News, but they are from other boroughs and are moving on from the Council to other positions at the end of the year. Closer to home, Brooklyn Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. courageously wrote to his colleagues in the Brooklyn delegation urging them to join him in supporting the Industry City zoning application notwithstanding their colleague’s objections. In a follow up op-ed in the Brooklyn Eagle he summed up the argument:
“In the pre-pandemic world, this was already a precedent-setting example of responsible development in our borough that would have been an important project for Brooklyn’s economic future. Now, in the face of a financial crisis unlike anything since the Great Depression, it is an absolute necessity."
"We find ourselves at a historically precarious junction and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the City Council is now faced with a decision that will help to determine which economic path our City ultimately takes…This pandemic has forced us to think anew about what’s best for the greater good of our borough, our city and all of our residents – not just those within a few square blocks of a proposed development – and within that context I believe the choice for the City Council on Industry City’s proposal should be clear.”
Bravo! Now what is needed is leadership from city-wide officials who are willing to step up and represent the needs and interests of the entire city. So amid mass unemployment in our city, what does Mayor de Blasio have to say? When first asked about it, he said that because it is a private application his administration doesn’t play a “leading role” and that while jobs are welcomed in New York City, it is really between the developer and the City Council.
The zoning process is overseen by the City Planning Commission, a mayoral agency, which plays a leading role in all of these decisions. The fact that no public subsidies are required for the Industry City project is a plus, not an element that makes it a “private application” that is solely between the developer and the Council. For the mayor to take the position that he has no role in this or any large-scale land-use application unless his administration is the main driving force would be quite an abdication of responsibility.
It seems that he (perhaps urged by someone in his administration) thought it might be better to be slightly more engaged, and a few days later the mayor modified his comments when asked about Industry City again. The traditional deference to the impacted area’s Council member is worth respecting, he said, but added:
“But I do think we have to think about some of the overwhelming dynamics we're dealing with right now. We're in the middle of a pandemic and we've got to get people back to work. We've got to find every way to get livelihoods back to people who need them. So, that needs to be taken into account.”
This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Industry City plan, but it is an acknowledgement that the covid crisis should cause City Council members and many others to rethink their priorities and approach to growth, especially jobs. Approving this particular rezoning is the right thing to do and would also serve as a symbol that our elected leaders get that special, hard times call for new approaches. With New York City facing an economic abyss, the mayor has to ratchet up his support and work with the City Council to get the Industry City rezoning over the finish line.
That said, Mr. City Council Speaker, the ball is in your court.
Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.